Alfred Charles Smith.

The birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county online

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Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 49 of 53)
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Swedish Grd Trut ; but, as with ourselves, the Italians mark
its fishing propensities, and call it Pescatore. The Rev. A. P.
Morres has often seen these birds passing overhead in the
neighbourhood of Salisbury. Air. Baker has often found them
near Mere. I am informed by Mr. Stratton, of Gore Cross Farm,
in the parish of Market Lavington, that he has killed this bird
on his own land on the downs ; and that he has often seen them
passing over his fields, and wondered whither they were going,
for they always flew in the same direction, viz., to the north, so.
he conjectured they were making for Gloucester and the Severn.
On January 23rd, 1885, an immature specimen, in the plumage
of Bewick's ' Wagel,' was sent me for identification by the Rev.
T. A. Preston. It was shot close to Marl borough; and. Lord
Methuen tells me there is a stuffed specimen at Corsham Court,
which was shot on the waters there.

229. GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus marinus).

This, the largest of all the British Gulls, is sparingly scattered
round the coast of Britain, but on the mud-flats on the shores of
the Wash in Norfolk I have seen it in some numbers, and a
giant indeed it looks amongst its congeners, as big and master-
ful, and conspicuous among the smaller Gulls, as the Crane when
stalking amidst the smaller waders on the sand-banks of the
Nile. Moreover, it is a bully and a robber, overpowering any
weaker animal, fish, flesh, or fowl, within its reach, and purloining
eggs whenever it can find them : for it is of voracious appetite,
to which nothing comes amiss, and has well been designated
' the Scavenger of the Shore.' Its flight, though easy and
buoyant, and even majestic, is decidedly slow, as are all the
movements of this overgrown species. Its note is very loud and

Great Black-backed Gull. 537

harsh, a sort of rough barking noise or a hoarse laugh. It is
also most wary and suspicious of danger, and is not easy of
approach. Sir R. Payne-Gallwey says : ' Black-blacked Gulls
are as " Vultures of the Sea," and scent plunder from afar. They
will attack a disabled Wigeon or Teal, and tear it in pieces in a
few seconds, ripping open the breast as with a knife. They may
be often seen to lift their prey with the bill, a few yards into the
air, only to let it fall. They would like to carry it to the land to
feast at leisure, but their feet not being formed for grasping, they
cannot retain a hold of their capture.'* In Kent and Essex it is
called c Cob,' from its large size, after the same rule by which we
call a large species of nut a Cob-nut, and a big pony a Cob, etc.
In Sussex it is called the ' Parson Gull,' from a supposed resemb-
lance in its black and white plumage to the hood and surplice of
a clergyman. In Sweden, too, it is generally known as the Prost,
or 'Deacon,' as its dress is said to resemble the attire of a
Lutheran priest in full canonicals, or as some wickedly declare
from its lugubrious voice ! The Rev. A. P. Morres has several
times seen them flying overhead at some elevation, both in his
own parish and quite recently at Clarendon, when they were at
no very great height above him. Mr. Grant has received at
various times three specimens of this fine Gull for preservation ;
one from Wootton Bassett, on July 24th, 1873 ; another from
Bromham, July 30th of the same year ; and the third on August
27th, 1874, from Cheverell. In France it is Gdeland a manteau
noir ; in Germany, Mantel Meve, ' Cloak Gull ' ; in Sweden, Hajs
Trut, ' Sea Trut.'

230. COMMON SKUA (Lestris cataractes).

The robber Gulls, of which this is the more common species,
may be distinguished from their more honest peaceful brethren,
described above, by the formidable hooked beak and strong-
crooked talons with which they are armed, and with which they
are able to hold fast the prey they have seized, and to tear it in
pieces while so holding it. In these respects they resemble the
' The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 88.

538 Laridce.

raptorial birds which stand at the head of our list. In habits,
too, they are persecuting and exacting, for no sooner do they
behold their quieter congeners returning from their fishing
excursions, than they give instant chase, and do not desist from
harassing their unoffending fellows till they have compelled
them to disgorge the fish they have swallowed, and which they
seize before it reaches the water, and carry off in triumph. They
are known as ' Parasitic Gulls,' because they are supported on
the food procured by other Gulls; and 'Brown Gulls,' from
their prevailing colour ; while the generic name, lestris, ' robber,'
aptly describes them. They are called ' Skua Gulls ' because the
cries they utter are supposed to resemble the syllables ' Skui.'
They are natives of the Arctic regions, and are often found in
very high latitudes. Their flight is performed by a succession of
jerks, and is strong and rapid, as indeed is indispensable for
such marauders. They are so fierce and bold that they will
attack any animal bird or beast and even man, if he should
intrude upon their nests ; and they will kill and prey upon
other Gulls, splitting open their heads with a single blow of their
powerful beak, and rending them in pieces with their crooked
talons. Mr. Morres well observes that they ought to be called
the 'Bullies of the Sea.' In some respects they show much
affinity with the Petrels.

I have several instances of the occurrence of this bird in
Wiltshire : one which I saw in the hands of Mr. Withers, taxider-
mist at Devizes, in December, 1857, and which had just been
killed by Mr. Hooper, of Lavington, and which Mr. Withers de-
scribed to me as the ' Black Gull ' ; another of which the Rev.
George Powell wrote me an account, shot at Heytesbury in
September, 1863, by Mr. O'Brien, son-in-law of Lord Heytesbury,
while partridge-shooting, and which proved to be a young
female. Since which Lord Heytesbury tells me a second
specimen has been killed in his water-meadows within the last
four or five years. Another was also seen in a field of Mr.
Norman Wentworth's at Avebury, with a broken wing, and
attacked by a number of rooks, in January, 1872, and was

Richardson's Skua. 539

brought to Mr. Grant for preservation. It measured four feet
six inches across the wings, and 23 inches in length, and weighed
3 Ib. And a fifth specimen was caught in my own parish of
Yatesbury, by Mrs. Tanner's shepherd, at the latter end of
August, 1882. It appeared to have been wounded, and was
unable to rise from the ground. It was preserved at Calne, and is
now in the possession of Mr. Munday, late bailiff to Mrs. Tanner.
The Marlborough College Natural History Reports mention
one seen in that neighbourhood in 1882 ; and Mr. Grant tells me
of one killed at Wedhampton in 1861, and of another taken at
Swindon in May, 1864. The Rev. A. P. Morres was informed by
Mr. White, the taxidermist of Salisbury, that one of these birds
was picked up on the downs at Orcheston St. Mary, by Mr. Mills,
on October 31st, 1882. The same species is found in the Southern
Ocean, where it is known as the ' Cape Hen ' of the sealers, and
the ' Port Egmont Hen ' of Captain Cook, and displays the same
fierce daring disposition as with us.* By Yorkshire fishermen
it is called the ' Morrel Hen/ and by others the ' Sea Eagle,' on
account of its boldness in attack and its violence. It is called
cataractes from its habit of rushing down on its prey like a
cataract, Latinized from the Greek /carappd/cTr)?. In France it
is Stercoraire cataracte or Le Gdeland brun ; and in Sweden,
Stor Labbe, ' Great Labbe.'

231. RICHARDSON'S SKUA (Lestris crepidatiui).

Sometimes called L. Richardsonii, sometimes L. parasiticus,
and sometimes L. arcticus; but inasmuch as all the Skua Gulls
are visitors to Arctic regions, and parasitic in their habits, such
specific names are only confusing. It is called crepidatus,
'wearing sandals,' from its parti- coloured feet, but this pecu-
liarity of yellow legs and black toes belongs to the immature
bird only. With equally little reason it is sometimes called the
'Black-toed Gull.' More characteristic and more appropriate,
because they refer to the long and slender tail feathers which
belong to the adult bird, are the Continental names for this
Button in Ibis for 1865, p. 277, and for 1867, p. 185.

540 Laridw.

species, as in France, Le Stercoraire d tongue queue; in Germany,
Struntmeve, ' Tail-Gull ' ; in Italy, titercorario di coda longa ; in
Sweden, Spets Stjertad Labbe, or ! Pointed-Tailed Labbe.' Bishop
Pontoppidan, when speaking of this bird, calls it Jo-tyv, or ' Jo-
thief,' and says it is an enemy to all other birds. The fishermen
and sailors on our coasts call it the ' Boatswain,' or ' Bo'sun,' as,
indeed, they call almost all birds with pointed tails, because
they carry their ' marline-spike,' the boatswain's emblem of office
in the merchant service, as is the whistle in the navy.* Else-
where it is called the 'Teazer,' which is very appropriate. In
its mode of flight, persecution of birds of inferior power, and
thievish propensities, it resembles its congener described above.
It is not by any means uncommon on our coasts all round the
island, though, of course, more abundant as we advance towards
the north, for its home is in the Arctic regions, and Sir E. Parry
found it as high as 82 north latitude. I have the pleasure of
adding this species to the Wiltshire list on the authority of Mr.
Baker, for he reports a specimen killed at Heytesbury in October,
1879, which he had an opportunity of examining at the bird-
stuffer's at Warminster, and pronounced it an immature bird,
the two central tail-feathers not having been developed. And
I have since learned from the Marlborough College Natural
History Reports that a specimen was shot near Martinsell in

232. MANX SHEARWATER (Puffinus anglorum).

The Petrels are at once recognisable by their peculiar beaks,
which are very much curved, arched, and hooked towards the
point, and also furrowed and indented and furnished with
tubular nostrils, through which they can eject at will a quantity
of oil, and for which latter valuable article they are highly
prized by the hardy natives of the Western Isles of Scotland.
Their legs are placed far backwards, which facilitates their
singular practice of running along the surface of the waves in

* Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. iii., p. 683.

Manx Shearwater. 541

search of food * but on land they can neither stand nor walk
upright, but shuffle along on the breast. They are true birds of
the ocean, and, I may say, birds of the storm : for during the
darkest nights and the most tempestuous weather they may be
descried following in the wake of the ship in ease and comfort,
skimming along the surface of the water, and even resting in
the greatest composure in the most tremendous seas. Their
principal food is fat or whatever floating animal substance they
can find which is reducible to oil. The Manx Shearwater,
though rarely seen on the eastern, is abundant on the western
coasts of England ; but from its habit of passing the day in the
holes or burrows where it breeds, and only sallying forth by
night, it is not very generally met with. When on land they
sit very nearly in an upright position. This bird is not in
reality a Puffin, nor does it even belong to the same family as
, the well-known grotesque species which we know so well under
that name ; but it has come to be generally recognised as
Puffinus from Willoughby having called it ' the Puffin of the
Isle of Man ' : nor, indeed, has it special claims of Manx citizen-
ship beyond the fact that the western coasts of Great Britain are
the localities it chiefly affects. But it retires to the Mediter-
ranean for the winter. This is the species so numerous on the
Bosphorus, where long files of them are ever flying through the
channel, an up and down train several hundred yards in length
being often in sight at the same time. These are commonly
believed to be the dmes damne'es of Sultanas who got the sack
under the old regime.^ I am aware of but two specimens
having made their appearance in Wiltshire, one that was taken
by a boy at Market Lavington from a hole in a hayfield and
carried to Mr. Elgar Sloper at Devizes ; and the second, as Mr.
Thomas Kemm informed me, taken by his son at Avebury alive,
but apparently wounded, early in September, 1879. In France
it is Petrel Manx and Le Puffin cendre" ; in Norway, Skrapa ;
and in Spain, Baltridja, and in some parts Virot; but, from

Selby's ' Illustrations of British Ornithology/ vol. ii., p. 527.
f W. H. Simpson in Ibis for 1861, p. 366.

542 Laridce.

their habit of dashing hither and thither in the gloom of night,
they are known to the Malaga fishermen as 'Animas' and
< Diablos.'*

233. WILSON'S PETREL (Thalassidroma oceanica).

The Petrels are at once to be distinguished by their remark-
able beak, which differs from that of all other birds ; and they
possess the power of squirting from their tubular nostrils a
clear liquid oil. They are of very rapid flight, and, though far
separated in all respects from that family, bear a general re-
semblance in appearance and colour to the Swallows, whence
Temminck called them Petrels Hirondelles. They are of nocturnal
habits, remaining underground in the holes t where they breed
during the day, for bright daylight seems to overpower them,
and they abhor the brilliant sunshine : and they come forth in
the evening to fly with astonishing speed over the waves.
Stormy weather, however, attended as it generally is with a
darkened sky, tempts them forth in the daytime : and hence
they are looked upon by superstitious sailors as the harbingers,
if not the promoters, of a tempest, and are hated by them
accordingly.-f- The scientific name, thalassidroma, sufficiently
describes the habit of the species which compose this genus of
running on the surface of the waves ; whence, too, their English
and French name of ' Petrel ' is derived, in allusion to the in-
cident narrated in the Gospels, of the Apostle St. Peter walking
on the water. Wilson's Petrel is one of our rarest British birds,
but three or four specimens alone having been obtained in this
country. It is therefore with especial gratification that I am
able to record, on the unimpeachable testimony of the late
Rev. G. Marsh, that a fine specimen of this bird was picked up
dead from exhaustion in Sutton Benger Mead in November,
1849. The labourer who found it took it home to his cottage,
with the intention of taking it to the Vicarage ; but on his wife
persuading him that it was only a Swift, he threw it out into

* Howard Saunders in Ibis for 1871, p. 401.
f Zoologist for 1859, p. 6192.

Forked-tailed Petrel 543

the road. But happily another labourer passed by, who had a
better knowledge of ornithology ; and satisfied in his own mind
that a Swift did not possess webbed feet, he picked it up and
brought it to Mr. Marsh, doubtless to the ultimate satisfaction
of both of them. So nearly, however, was this most rare and
most valuable specimen being lost. There were no remarkable
gales blowing at that time, but it was observed that it was just
previous to a long-continued frost. It may be distinguished
from its congeners by the superior length of leg and by the
absence of a hind toe ; and Mr. F. Godman, who fell in with this
species at the Azores, observed that in flying they carry their
legs stretched straight out behind them, and their feet protruded
about an inch beyond the tail, producing the effect of two long
feathers.* The name of oceanica, ' belonging to the open sea/
is very applicable, for when ships have advanced into the broad
Atlantic, hundreds of miles from shore, this little bird has often
been seen careering in headlong flight among the great waves,
or sheltering itself from the violence of the wind under the lee
of the vessel.

234. FORKED-TAILED PETREL (Thalassidroma Leachii).

This species is considerably larger than the Common Storm
Petrel, which otherwise in general appearance and habits it very
much resembles. The forked tail, too, from which it derives its
name, at once distinguishes it, and its shorter legs separate it
from the species last described. Like the other Petrels, this
bird is seldom seen at sea but in tempestuous weather, in which
it appears to rejoice; and yet, after severe gales, it is often
picked up dead far inland, as if unable to withstand the violence
of the wind, and, driven far from its native haunts, perishes
miserably of starvation. In the Zoologist for 1866, p. 101, Mr.
Henry Blackmore records the occurrence of two specimens of
this somewhat rare species near Salisbury, one of which was
picked up on the 27th of October, 1859, by a railway porter on
the Great Western Railway, two miles from the city, having
* Ibis for 1866, p. 104.

544 Laridce.

apparently met its death by flying against the wires of the
electric telegraph ; the other was supposed to have been killed in
the same manner, as it was also found near the railway embank-
ment with its wing broken on the 25th of November, 1866, at
East Grimstead, near Salisbury. I learn from Mr. Grant that on
January 10th, 1867, a specimen was brought to him which had
been taken at Pewsey. On March 21st, 1876, a note from
Major Spicer, of Spye Park, informed me that about six weeks
previously his keeper had picked up between the house and the
stable a specimen quite dead, which he conjectured must have
been blown off the sea by a gale of wind and starved to death,
for it was in an emaciated condition. In December, 3884, I
received the fifth Wiltshire specimen, sent me for identification
by Rev. T. A. Preston, which had been picked up dead in
Savernake Forest by one of the keepers on November 28th of
that year. In France it is, as in the old scientific name, Pttrel
de Leach; but by modern ornithologists it is now commonly
called leucorrhoa, from Xiyxo'f, ' white,' and S^o?, ' the rump,'
from its white hinder parts.

235. STORM PETREL (Thalassidroma pelagica).

The last bird on the British list is also the smallest of the
Order of Swimmers, and this is the Common Petrel, which is
known to all, and which sailors have designated as 'Mother
Carey's Chicken,' ' Little Witch,' and a variety of other appella-
tions indicative of the superstitious awe they feel towards these
innocent little birds, which, as I said above, they consider not
only the forerunners of stormy weather, but the actual cause and
origin of the tempest. It is true that all the Petrels are more
often seen during the prevalence of gales than in calms ; and
they seem thoroughly to enjoy the most boisterous weather,
when they will skim over the crested waves, patting them with
their feet as they run over the surface, or fly down into the
hollows of the great waves and then up and over some gigantic
billow, in evident delight at the storm of elements raging around.
Sometimes they will stand for a moment on the summit of a

Storm Petrel. 545

billow, with wings expanded, while they pick up some dainty
morsel at top of the wave, for they procure all their food from
the surface of the sea ; but they seldom alight on the water for
swimming, and they are quite incapable of diving. Considering
their thorough appreciation of angry weather, it is strange how
many specimens are annually picked up either dead or in a
dying, exhausted condition, during stormy weather in inland
districts, as if buffeted to death by the violence of the gale.
Possibly it may be that, driven from their proper element, they
are faint from starvation, and so unable to contend against the
fury of the wind ; at all events, not an autumn passes without
many such casualties to the Storm Petrel occurring in our
inland counties. In Wiltshire I had a notice from my friend
the Rev. W. C. Lukis of a specimen picked up dead by a labour-
ing man, in the parish of Ludgershall, in November, 1859. Mr.
Grant reports a specimen found at Cherrington, November 9,
1863. The Rev. Townley Dowding, then Vicar of Marlborough,
told me that in April, 1865, he distinctly saw a bird of this
species fly to a portion of the Kennet at the foot of his garden,
where it remained some five minutes dabbling in the water, then
flew off, and alighted again a short distance farther down the
stream ; and lastly, as a fitting conclusion to this long catalogue
of Wiltshire birds, wherein I have derived so much assistance
from the records furnished me by my late lamented friend, the
Rev. George Marsh, I mention a specimen of which he informed
me, which was picked up dead at Somerford Parva in the year
1830, which had evidently died from exhaustion, and which was
preserved by Mr. Wightwick, of Brinkworth, but subsequently
became moth-eaten, and no longer exists.

If Wilson's Petrel deserved the name of oceanica, certainly
this species is no less entitled to pelagica, 'belonging to the
open sea ;' for what can be more truly oceanic than this little
bird, which, as Montagu says, alone of the feathered creation
dares venture so far from shore as the middle of the Atlantic
Ocean, where it appears to find subsistence, and only retires
during the breeding season? From its enjoyment of rough


546 Laridce.

weather it has derived its name in most countries. With us it
is the 'Storm Petrel ;' in France, Pttrel tempete ; in Germany,
Kleinster Sturm vogel ; in Sweden, Liten Storm Svala, l Little
Storm Swallow ; in Portugal it is Alma de mestre, ' Soul of the
Master.' Among Norwegian fishermen it is known as Lever-Lars,
or ' Liver-Laurentius/ because, being of a fearless nature, it
approaches cl6se to the fishing boats in the North Sea, and
greedily devours the offal, and especially the fish-liver, which is
thrown overboard. Bishop Pontoppidan calls it Hav Hest, or
' the Sea-horse/ and gives a most singular portrait as well as a
marvellous account of it. In 1756, in County Kerry, this bird,
of all others, was esteemed a delicacy for the table, and was
named the 'Irish Ortolan.' There is certainly no accounting
for taste ; but it must have been a very strong and a very oily

With this pretty little species I close the list of birds which
have appeared within the County of Wilts.



I HAVE already remarked that there is almost always migration
going on amongst our feathered tribes, sometimes on a large, but
generally on a small scale ; sometimes across the sea and for long
distances, but more often from one inland district to another, or
from the interior of our island to the sea coast. And the principal
motive which impels this so frequent movement, and urges the
restless flocks to pass on to pastures new, is not altogether, as
many suppose, the inclemency of weather, or the extremes of heat
and cold, but the profusion or the scarcity of the food upon
which their very being depends. See the countless troops of
little warblers which as soon as the warm days of spring waken
vegetation, and quicken into life the insect hordes arrive on
our shores, and soon spread themselves over this island, revisit-
ing each its own old haunt of former years, the. native place
where it was reared, maybe ; or mark the vast flocks of birds
which, taking leave of us in the spring, penetrate to distant
northern lands, there to spend the short but brilliant summer
within the Arctic Circle ; and in either case their arrival coincides
with the development of countless myriads of insects which are
absolutely essential to the very existence of their young. None
but those who have visited those northern lands can have any
notion of the immense quantities of gnats and mosquitoes which
literally cloud the atmosphere ; and, revelling in perpetual sun-
shine, with no chills of night to check their increase, they make
the most of the few months of continuous daylight, and abound
in the greatest profusion. To the unhappy traveller, indeed,


548 On Migration.

they are a source of perpetual irritation and annoyance, to a
degree scarcely to be conceived by those who have not ex-
perienced it ; but to the birds which resort in such numbers to
those sequestered breeding-places, what an inexhaustible store of
the food best suited to their tender brood ! In a very much less
degree indeed numerically, but perhaps, in proportion to the
birds which breed in this inland district, not so far behind, are
the insects which spring forth into life with the warm days of
early summer, and which afford an ample supply of the food
they need, not only to the soft-billed Warblers which fill our
coppices and gardens in spring, but to the hard-billed Finches

Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 49 of 53)